Samer Kozah was born in Bab Touma, one of the historical neighborhoods in Old Damascus. During the 1950s, people started to neglect their homes, their large size and maintenance costs proving to be too difficult for many. Homeowners opted to either to sell their homes or rent them out in order to move to more modern areas. Samer’s father, however, refused to ever move out of their ancestral home, which has been in the family for about 200 years.
“The successive governments since that time never really grasped the importance of Old Damascus as a historical and archeological site that needed to be preserved,” says Samer.
A French architect named Michel Ecochard was the author of ‘The Echochard Project’ to modernize Damascus. The project involved cutting roads into the neighborhoods of Old Damascus, such as the famous Al-Thawra Street, which linked the Baghdad Street neighborhood to Bab Masala. To do so, a number of old houses and parts of the historical Souk Sarouja had to be demolished.
The Ecochard project also focused on modernizing the neighborhoods of Old Damascus. The plan was to eliminate a lot of the old traditional houses in order to widen the roads and work according to a more modern grid. During the 1960s, however, a group of intellectuals protested the project, aiming instead to protect the city’s ancient splendor, and succeeded in halting the work.
“Old Damascus was a collection of prominent neighborhoods,” says Samer, “including Bab Touma, Al-Shaghour, Al-Midan, Al-Amara, Sarouja, Al-Salihiya, and Al-Muhajirin. Each neighborhood often had its own particular religious or sectarian character, demographically speaking. Bab Touma, for example, was considered a Christian neighborhood, and its residents lived in different areas depending to which church they belonged. The Catholics lived next to their church, while the Orthodox lived near the Orthodox church and so on. But in general there was demographic diversity in all the neighborhoods, and the inhabitants themselves didn’t discriminate among one another on a religious or sectarian basis.”
Samer goes on to describe the houses in the different Damascus neighborhoods. “When you walk through the alleys and the old neighborhoods, you can’t tell the difference between a rich house and a poor house. All the houses have the same unassuming appearance on the outside; this was Old Damascus.”
During the 1990s, Old Damascus witnessed a wave of restoration as old houses, almost at the point of completely falling apart, were repaired after years of neglect. The number of foreign tourists increased as a result, and so too, did house prices and the cost of goods. Work opportunities increased as more and more visitors thronged to the area, especially in the evenings. This was a direct result of the conversion of many of the old houses in Bab Touma and other neighborhoods in Old Damascus, to tourist friendly outlets such as restaurants and hotels.
Samer sees these changes as beneficial to the neighborhood. Though many of the old residential houses had been transformed into commercial establishments, the change to the demographic fabric had already begun long before, in the 1950s.
“All the capital invested into Old Damascus played a role in renewing the government’s interest in the area as a historical and touristic site,” says Samer.
In 1994, Samer decided to convert part of his ancestral home into a commercial art gallery. He could have sold the whole house for a significant sum, or invested to transform it into a commercial project as many others had done. He preferred, however, to create something of cultural and artistic value to reflect his passion for those things and to preserve something of the memories that had been alive in the house for so long.
There were no commercial art galleries at the time in Bab Touma, and Samer’s endeavor encouraged others to open their own art galleries and establish workshops and art centers there.
Samer has much to say about Syrian art. “Syrian art has its own venerable place and reputation,” he says, “but its consumers are all outside the country. The practice of acquiring paintings is limited to only a few Syrians. My main clientele consisted of tourists or people living outside Syria, and some paintings were also sold to neighboring countries, and later countries in the Arab Gulf region.”